Daily Class OutlineDaily Class QuestionsDaily Class Web LinksDaily Class Notes

Question for Discussion:
How has immigration
and debates about immigration affected the
development of the American West?

Reading: Gerster, pp. 243-247; Letter to Governor
Bigler (web)
; Charles King editorial (web); Immigrants
harm American Society (web)
; Immigrants do not harm
American Society (web)
; Foreign Workers at Highest
Levels (web)

Video: "Frontline: "Go Back to Mexico",
"I am an American"

Daily Class Web Links

The Geography of American Settlement and Development

The Immigration Debate in
the West: 1850-1997

American Immigration Numbers

Daily Class Outline

1. What are current levels of immigration to the United States?

2. What changes in immigration law allowed
this massive increase in immigration since

3. How does the history of immigration to
the American West 1820  to the present
help us understand the current debate about immigration to the U.S.?

4. Based on the reading, and this history
of immigration to the American West 1820
to the present, why do you think American in
the Southwest are so opposed to continuing
high levels of immigration?

5. Why do Americans allow their government
to encourage increasing levels of immigration
when the majority of Americans are in favor of restricting immigration?

Daily Class Questions

1. How much has immigration, both legal and illegal, to the United States increased since 1970?

2. What country does the larger group of immigrants to the U.S. since 1970 come from?

3. According to Charles King, have recent immigration laws worked to restrict or actually increase immigration to the United States?

4. From King's essay, which groups would you guess are most in favor of increased immigration to the U.S.?

5. Why if, as King argues, the majority of Americans are opposed to increasing immigration has the U.S. government actually encouraged record high levels of legal immigration to the United States?

6. What are the major arguments Norman Assing uses to defend the rights of Chinese immigrants in California in the 1850s?

7. What are the major reasons the 1882 Chinese Exclusion gives for excluding further Chinese immigration to the United States?

8. Who do you think makes the stronger argument for or against excluding Chinese immigration George Hoar or James Slater?

9. Do you recognize any of the arguments for or against limiting Chinese immigration in the 1880s as similar arguments being used today in the national debate over immigration today?

10. From your reading, what do you think are the major reasons Americans use to justify restricting immigration?

11. What do you think: Are high levels of immigration to the U.S. good or bad for the country?

Daily Class Notes

In 1997, the federal government announced that over 5 million illegal aliens are estimated to be living in the United States. Since 1970, over 23 million legal immigrants have been welcomed to the United States. More than 8.3 million people immigrated to the United States in the 1980s, which is the highest number of immigrants in any decade in American history. If these rates of immigration continue in the 1990s, over 10 million immigrants will be welcomed into the United States in the 1990s. In fact, Congress in the 1990 Immigration Act increased the number of people allowed to immigrate per year from 35 to 40 percent.

How has immigration affected the economy, society, and culture of the American West? The settlement, development, and continued economic health of the West all depended on the rush of immigrant into the West from the 1820s to this day. However, despite the dependence on immigration for the economic growth and development of the West, Americans in the West have historically have been troubled by the massive influx of peoples into the West. The irony is that on the one hand their economy and society depends on continued immigration, but Westerners resent the coming of immigrants and have tried over the years to block and limit their settling in the West. How can we explain this Western ambivalence about immigration?

Let's look at the current debate over immigration in the United States and in the West to see what the issues are. In 1997, the federal government announced that over 5 million illegal aliens are estimated to be living in the United States. Since 1970, over 23 million legal immigrants have been welcomed to the United States. More than 8.3 million people immigrated to the United States in the 1980s, which is the highest number of immigrants in any decade in American history. If these rates of immigration continue in the 1990s, over 10 million immigrants will be welcomed into the United States in the 1990s. In fact, Congress in the 1990 Immigration Act increased the number of people allowed to immigrate per year from 35 to 40 percent. Despite increasing competition for jobs, the United States continues to increase the number of immigrants it allows legally into the United States. And we really don't know what are the numbers of new illegal immigrants enter the United States each year. Why is the United States welcoming so many new immigrant in the last few decades?

Since the 1970s, Americans have been increasingly concerned about the growing numbers of illegal immigrants, especially from Mexico and Latin America. In the 1980s and 1990s, the majority of Americans want to limit legal and illegal immigration. But America continues to open its doors to more and more immigrants. With 4.7 percent of the world's population, we are taking in more than 50 percent of the world's immigrants. Why are we doing this if the majority of Americans want to reduce this immigration?

In the "Frontline" documentary, "Go Back to Mexico, many Americans in the West, especially in California, describe their concerns about increasing numbers of immigrants coming to the United States. Their concerns range from taking American jobs, using scarce government services like welfare and education moneys, increasing overcrowding and demands for public services in California's growing cities, and the immigrants' failure to assimilate into American culture. But why are these immigrants coming? They are coming as economic refugees. Their countries of origin in the Third World cannot supply the high-paying jobs, the standard of living, the opportunities, and the future that living in America can. America still beckons as a land of opportunity for these immigrants.

So we have a fundamental conflict between the U.S. government's policy of welcoming increasing numbers of immigrants, immigrants' desires to come to and contribute to the American economy, and Americans' fear that immigrants are taking their jobs and threatening their standard of living. How have Americans resolved these conflicts in the past. I believe that a brief history of the debate over immigration to the West from the 1820s to the present will shed some light on the current immigration debate and Westerner's historical ambivalence about immigration.

From a larger historical perspective, the first illegal aliens, or immigrant problem, the West faced was the coming of the Spanish to the Americas in the 1500s. By 1600, the Spanish had conquered Mexico and laid claim to what is today the American Southwest, from California to Texas. From the Indians' who had settled in this region, the Spanish conquerors were the first illegal aliens, who threatened to undermine the culture and way of life. Many Indian peoples refused to accept Spanish control over the West.

In 1821, after hundreds of years of Spanish domination, Mexico won its Independence from Spain. Mexico was made up of a mestizo people, the descendants of both the native Indian peoples and the Spanish settlers. After winning its independence, Mexico was faced with a real dilemma in the 1820s, many Americans insisted that it was their God-given manifest destiny to conquer the continent and to push aside inferior peoples and cultures. Fearing this threat from the expansionist United States, the Mexican government in the 1820s decided to encourage white American settlers to settle in what is now the American Southwest. The Mexican government offered white settlers free land and freedom from taxes for five years in return for the settlers becoming citizens of Mexico, becoming Catholic, and adopting Mexican culture and society as their own. The Mexican government believed that if the Southwest was settled and developed that the United States could not conquer it from Mexico. This, however, was a grave mistake.

By the 1830s, Mexico realized that encouraging white settlers to settler in the Mexican Southwest was a mistake. White settlers were not recognizing Mexican law, not respecting the rights of Mexicans and Indians, and were refusing to become part of Mexican society and culture. Thus, Mexico faced an immigrant problem in the Southwest. Mexico acted to limit further white immigration and more tightly regulate the white immigrants who had settled in the Southwest. These efforts quickly led to conflict. In 1835 and 1836, settler communities in Texas declared their independence from Mexico and fought a war with the Mexican government. In 1836, the white settlers in Texas, with secret help from the United States government, had won their independence from Mexico. But the Mexican government never really accepted Texas Independence.

In 1846, the United States annexed Texas into the Union and started a war with Mexico in order to win the rest of the Mexican Southwest for American development. By 1848, the United States had conquered the Southwest from Mexico. In fact, the Mexicans' greatest fear had come true: The United States had stolen half of Mexican territory as a result of its war with Mexico. After winning the Southwest from Mexico, American settler began flooding into California and Oregon. It was now the American Southwest, and Americans would now face their own immigrant problems in the region.

The first major immigrant problem America faced in the West was from Chinese immigrants. From the late 1840s to the early 1880s, thousands of Chinese immigrants were recruited and encouraged to come to the American West to work in the mines, farms, and businesses. Fleeing famine and political unrest in China, many Chinese welcomed the opportunity to come to America. However, by the 1850s, many white American settlers in California increasingly saw these Chinese immigrants as a threat. Facing moves to restrict further Chinese immigration, Norman Assing, one of the leaders of the Chinese immigrant community in California, wrote a letter to the governor of California arguing that Californians shouldn't worry about Chinese immigrants. Assing argued that the Chinese were civilized, part of the white race, and helping to build the economy and society of the American Southwest.

By the 1870s, as a result of the increasing presence of Chinese immigrant communities in the Southwest, White Americans formed mobs and tried to burn-down the Chinese homes and drive them out of their cities at gunpoint. This racial violence was widespread, occurring from Seattle to Los Angeles in the 1870s. These white mobs feared the Chinese because they felt they were taking American jobs, threatening white businesses, and not assimilating into American society. Clearly, the American Southwest now had an immigrant problem. In 1882, the United States government passed the Chinese Exclusion Act which shut the door to further Chinese immigration to the United States. This was the first time the American government had limited immigration on the basis of race.

However, American businesses, farmers, railroad and mining companies had depended on cheap Chinese immigrant labor for the profits and much of their workforce. Unwilling to pay higher wages to American workers, Southwest economic interests increasingly looked to Japanese immigrants to replace the Chinese workers they could no longer attract from China. From 1882 to the early 1900s, economic and business elites recruited and encouraged Japanese immigrants to come to the West. Afterall, the law said that Chinese immigrants were no longer welcome, but it didn't say anything about Japanese immigrants.

By the early 1900s, many white American workers, farmers, and small businessmen began to fear Japanese immigrants. They argued that the Japanese were taking their jobs, threatening their standard of living, and not assimilating into American culture. Facing increasing pressure from concerned Americans, the United States government created an informal treaty with Japan greatly restricting Japanese immigration to the United States.

However, Western economic interests were still not willing to hire White Americans and pay them higher wages and benefits. Instead, these economic interests looked for another group of immigrants to take the place of the Chinese and Japanese immigrant workers they once depended on. From the early 1900s to 1924, Western economic interests recruited and encouraged Indians and Philippinos to immigrate to the American West. Of course, as you might imagine, by the late 1910s, the growing number of Indian, Phillipino, and Eastern Europeans immigrants in the West caused white Americans to again worry about an immigrant problem. In 1924, the Federal government passed the Immigration Act which shut the door to further immigration from Asia and Europe to the United States. But this didn't solve the immigrant problem for Western White Americans.

The 1924 Immigration Act did not include Mexicans and immigrants from Latin America. Western economic interests made sure they still had a source of cheap labor to work in the farms, mines, and businesses. By early 1930s, thousands and thousands of Mexicans had immigrated the American West. But with the Great Depression of the 1930s, many White Americans came to see these Mexican immigrants as a problem. In the early 1930s, blaming these Mexican workers for the economic Depression in the West, hundreds of thousands of Mexicans, both legal and illegal immigrants, were rounded up and forcibly returned to Mexico. White Americans now believed that with the Mexican immigrant problem taken care of there would be plenty of jobs for them.

However, after their Mexican workers were rounded up and deported, Western economic interests still did not want to hire more expense, local White workers. Instead, they recruited poor, Southern farmers and their families to migrate the American West in the 1930s. As a result hundreds of thousands of poor, White Southerners migrated to the West and took the jobs once held by Mexican immigrants. This worked for a while, but by the late 1930s, Western economic interests were facing a real dilemma: They couldn't find enough cheap White, Southern workers to work for them. Thousands of these workers had moved into the growing Western military industries and many more refused to work for such low wages and in such horrible conditions. So what did the Western economic interests do now?

In the late 1930s and early 1940s, Western economic interests convinced the Federal government that it should actively support Mexican immigrants to come and work in the West. They argued that there was now a shortage of cheap labor to work in the fields, mines, and factories of the West. From the late 1930s to 1964, working closely with Western economic interests, the United States government encouraged millions of Mexican workers to both work and settle in the American West. But, by the early 1960s, many White Americans again began to worry about the growth of Mexican immigrant communities in the West and competition for jobs with Mexican workers. They demanded that the Federal government end its support for the bracero program in 1964. However, in 1965, the United States government passed a new Immigration Act which once again large numbers of immigrants to come from Europe and Asia.

As a result of increasing federal government support for immigration since the 1970s, we have seen the numbers of legal and illegal immigrants rapidly increasing. However, the majority of American still feel, as they always have, that massive immigration threatens their jobs, standards of living, and American culture and society. Anti-immigrant sentiment in the West has been rising since the 1980s. So why has the government welcomed even larger numbers of immigrants in the 1990s than in the 1980s? This is the real question that needs to be addressed if Americans are going to have and open and honest public debate about its immigration problem.

Since the 1970s, in order to keep American companies in the United States, the Federal government, under pressure from large global corporations such as IBM, Microsoft, Ford, and GE, has open its doors to record numbers of immigrants. Just as Western economic interests depended on and still depend on new waves of immigrant workers to keep wages down and their profits up, America's largest corporations are demanding an every larger supply of workers. By rapidly increasing the number of workers seeking work, and actively creating competition between American and immigrant workers, American companies can keep wages low and demand that their workers accept a reduced standard of living. Recognizing this threat to their standard of living, American workers then demand that the government close its doors to future immigration. But their demands are going unheard. American companies, many with global operations, just threaten to move their operations out of the country if the government doesn't make sure that wages are low and their profits are high. The best example of this pressure can be seen by looking at the debate over increasing numbers of "guest workers" be allowed into the United States. Microsoft recently threatened to take some of its operation to India if the government didn't allow Indian computer programmers and engineers to work in the United States as temporary "guest workers."

The larger conclusion is that America does not have an immigrant problem. It has a jobs and wages problem. As long as American economic interests are unwilling to pay the wages demanded by American workers to maintain their relatively high standards of living, high compared to other, poorer, less-developed countries, then they will be forced to seek and recruit immigrant workers to the United States. The history of immigration to the American West best illustrates this process. Visitors to the West comment on the large Asian, Mexican, and Latin American communities in its major cities. The West is a meeting point of people from around the world because American economic interests have encouraged immigration and continue to do so. Until the government refuses to be blackmailed by America corporations and limits further immigration to the West and to America, Americans will debate about the causes and cures of the immigration problem. The larger unanswered question is this: Can the United States maintain its high standards of living in a global economy that is creating a downward spiral of living standards, as global corporations force workers to accept falling wages or lose their jobs to other countries. In the end, if American economic interests can't import workers to keep wages low, they will export their factories and companies.


© 2002 by Chris H.  Lewis, Ph.D.
Sewall Academic Program; University of Colorado at Boulder
Created 7 August 2002:  Last Modified: 15 Sept. 2002
E-mail: cclewis@spot.colorado.edu
URL:    http://www.colorado.edu/AmStudies/lewis/2010/west.htm
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